Federal judges have ruled against the Trump administration at least 63 times over the past two years, an extraordinary record of legal defeat that has stymied large parts of the president’s agenda on the environment, immigration and other matters.
In case after case, judges have rebuked Trump officials for failing to follow the most basic rules of governance for shifting policy, including providing legitimate explanations supported by facts and, where required, public input.
Many of the cases are in early stages and subject to reversal. For example, the Supreme Court permitted a version of President Trump’s ban on travelers from certain predominantly Muslim nations to take effect after lower-court judges blocked the travel ban as discriminatory.
But regardless of whether the administration ultimately prevails, the rulings so far paint a remarkable portrait of a government rushing to implement far-reaching changes in policy without regard for long-standing rules against arbitrary and capricious behavior.
“What they have consistently been doing is short-circuiting the process,” said Georgetown Law School’s William W. Buzbee, an expert on administrative law who has studied Trump’s record. In the regulatory cases, Buzbee said, “they don’t even come close” to explaining their actions, “making it very easy for the courts to reject them because they’re not doing their homework.”
Two-thirds of the cases accuse the Trump administration of violating the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), a nearly 73-year-old law that forms the primary bulwark against arbitrary rule. The normal “win rate” for the government in such cases is about 70 percent, according to analysts and studies. But as of mid-January, a database maintained by the Institute for Policy Integrity at the New York University School of Law shows Trump’s win rate at about 6 percent.
Must be all those Obama judges, right? Nope.
Trump has blamed his losses on “Obama judges” in the West Coast states that make up the 9th Circuit. While 29 setbacks have come from 9th Circuit judges, the trend is national, with 34 originating elsewhere, particularly in the District of Columbia Circuit, according to a count by The Washington Post.
Democratic appointees, many of them tapped by presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, are responsible for 45 decisions. Republican appointees dating back to President Ronald Reagan issued the other rulings. Magistrate judges, who are not appointed by presidents, made three of the decisions.
On major issues on which multiple judges have ruled, there has been little disagreement among them, no matter where the judges are located or who appointed them.
Four judges, for instance, have rejected the decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which has protected from deportation nearly 700,000 people brought to the United States as children. All four judges said essentially the same thing: that the government’s stated reason for ending DACA — that it was unlawful — was “virtually unexplained,” as U.S. District Judge John D. Bates, an appointee of President George W. Bush in Washington, said in an April opinion. A second explanation — that DACA creates a “litigation risk” — was derided by U.S. District Judge William Alsup in California as mere “spin.”
Three judges have invalidated the attempt to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 Census, the latestbeing U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg in San Francisco on March 6. All rejected as unbelievable Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s explanation that the move was intended to improve enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.